Johnny Doesn’t Read Even When He Can

For years I required my advanced 10th graders to read 2,000 pages a semester, averaging 100 pages a week, based on books that they chose. That way if a book we studied in class didn’t catch their fancy, they had the freedom to find books that appealed to them as long as the selections were appropriate for their grade level and school use.

However, after struggling how to ensure that the reading logs students turned in each month documenting this task were completely honest, I decided to decrease the amount to 1,500 pages this year, 70 pages a week, hoping that would diminish falsifying the logs.

So what happened? The strategy did not work.

When asked if they honestly did the 70 pages of reading each week on their own, an average of 10 pages a day, 66% said that they had done all of the reading while 34% said they had not.

Here are some of their responses.

“I honestly have no excuse other than the fact that I have no time to read every day.”

“In this day of competition and cheating in school, it’s difficult to be completely honest because it can be damaging to yourself, sometimes even more than being dishonest.”

The biggest reason given for not reading was a lack of time. Yet teens find the time to watch nine hours of entertainment media a day according to Common Sense Media’s study released last month.

They can’t seem to find 10 minutes a day to read 10 pages in a book that they personally chose for themselves.

While many students did write that “reading is absolutely essential” to their academic and career success, some did not see it that way.

“I don’t think it is essential to get through high school and college.”

“We are used to visuals; one would rather have it read to us than read ourselves.”

“Reading books is pointless, they are just really dumb.”

“If I felt like it, I could be at least mildly successful without reading another written word in my life.” Remember, this student volunteered to enroll in an honors English class.

By the way, one of the requirements of the reading log is for the student and his parent to sign off on the paper as a way of securing the veracity of the work.   Evidently, students do not take signing one’s name to a piece of paper as meaningful.

I tell my students the best way to improve their writing and speaking skills is to read material at or slightly above their reading level. Just by seeing words in print will expand their vocabulary database.

Renaissance Learning, an education analytic company, discovered that students who read 30 minutes a day were exposed to 13.7 million words by the time they graduated high school, while those who read fewer than 15 minutes viewed only 1.5 million words.   Unfortunately, the former group represented 18% of kids while the latter 54%.

And the problem gets exponentially worse in college where there are textbooks not as watered down as the ones kids read in high school, another factor why so many college students struggle finishing a degree.

We are living at a time when reading books is not a viable option for kids in their spare time. Perhaps if they observed more of their parents reading a book it would interest them.

Think about this: how many teenagers will be receiving books as presents this Christmas compared to video games?   Books have become the new “underwear” present that evidently few people want under the tree.



Free Community College Tuition is Not the Answer

What does $1,400 buy nowadays? One year of cell phone service with T-Mobile, one year of television with DirecTV, or one year’s tuition at a California community college—for 60% of students, that is. The other 40% pay no tuition.

Which is why the chorus of support for free community college tuition as proposed by President Obama in last month’s State of the Union address makes one pause.

It is one of those proposals that on the face of it sounds opposition-proof, a people-pleasing idea that would affect many: four out of every ten students attend a community college. The percentage is higher among Glendale students. But the President’s plan is for something that is not really needed.

Community college tuition is not the number one obstacle for most students. States with much higher tuition than California’s actually have higher completion rates.

Sure, some students have to work to pay for living expenses and are unable to attend college full-time, precluding them from finishing their college studies.

However, many attending community college are not stellar students.

Community colleges used to be the domain of those students whose income would not allow entrance to a state university campus.   After attending a junior college for two years, they would transfer to a 4-year institution to finish their degree.

Today, barely ten percent of community college students finish a bachelor’s degree within six years based on a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. They struggled in high school and now need remedial coursework. Their past academic record of poor grades and easy classes did not meet the prerequisites of the state university system.

The solution isn’t to keep pushing these unprepared people into college. A kid who doesn’t fit the mold of a successful student—good grades, sits and listens attentively, does homework—doesn’t suddenly succeed by continuing assembly line-like in that traditional, passive environment.

Recall the old days when high schools provided viable vocational education alternatives for students skilled in other ways than book learning?

True, a person earns more money with a college degree than without one. However, not all jobs require them.

So having the federal government pay 75% and states the remaining 25% of the annual $6 billion needed to fund Obama’s project is not a smart investment.

The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) goes beyond paying for tuition, providing textbooks, subway passes, and closely monitored individualized counseling.

No wonder that the ASAP has worked so far, with the disadvantaged students’ graduation rate nearly doubling, but costing 63% more than students not in the program, as reported by the nonprofit group MDRC.

Free tuition may help out a bit, but there is no funding in the President’s plan for the support services that have made ASAP successful.   If there were, the allocation would rise astronomically.

At the very least, any tuition-free proposal should ask something of its recipients. How about having students perform community service projects during their high school career in exchange for tuition? Tuition-free should not mean responsibility-free.

There is nothing wrong by having individuals make sacrifices in order to achieve goals. That is what makes attaining the goal so worthwhile. Giving people money doesn’t solve their problems. Just look at the lives of lotto winners.

Focus should be on rethinking the role of high school that still accelerates the notion that all must attend college. Of course, that is a much more complex problem to solve than simply providing people free tuition.

Too Much Homework

Homework has been a problem for students and parents alike for years, problem for students to do, problem for parents to force their children to do.  In recent years the concept of no homework has surfaced and as a parent myself I can see why.  

One of the pleasures of school holidays is not having to get on the backs of your kids to do their homework.  For me, I dread Monday through Thursdays since each of those nights I need to constantly remind my sons, “Have you done your homework?”  I don’t look forward to constantly referring to my second grader’s weekly packet, and signing every day for every book that he needs to read every night.

What’s especially dreadful, however, is when some teachers assign special projects over Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.  The reason it is called “winter break” is for there to be a physical and mental time away from school.  Teachers should recognize this and not place pressure on families during fun, traditional holidays periods.

As a high school English teacher I am very mindful of minimizing the amount of homework I assign, aware that my students have 5 other teachers who may not minimize it as much as I do.  I also make it my policy not to deliberately assign massive projects over 3-day weekends or vacation periods.  It’s important that kids be given time to be kids after the school day is over, and that they spend as much time with their family as possible.

Besides, why do I want to return to work after a holiday and receive dozens of student projects that I have to grade anyway?  It’s as if some teachers feel an obligation to “lay it on” when school isn’t in session.  Even during summer vacation, high schools allow teachers of advanced courses to assign summer work.

Keep the homework at school and let kids spend time with their families at home.

School work is best done at school with the people best able to help the children: the teachers.